QUICK IN TWO LANGUAGES: THE SKOROPOSLUSHNITSA ICON

There are many Russian icons of Mary traditionally considered “wonder-working” by Eastern Orthodox conservative believers, that is, able to work miracles. Many of these originated in Russia, some were borrowed from the West, but a number were originally Greek Orthodox icons adopted by Russian Orthodoxy.

Among these borrowed Greek icons is one originally called the Παναγία Γοργοεπήκοος — Panagia Gorgoepikoos — meaning the “All Holy ‘Quick To Hear'” in Greek.

“Panagia” — “All Holy” is a title of Mary. When the Russians borrowed this image, they translated the name of the image as “Skoroposlushnitsa,” which also means “Quick To Hear.”

This is a somewhat elaborated Russian version of that icon. The title icon itself is in the center of the image. The image at the top and the archangels beside and holding the central image are not original to the type. The multi-winged red angel below the image is a seraph.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a better look at the central image:

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The three-part image at the top of the icon is a separate icon type, the Deisis. It shows the heavenly court, with Christ the Ruler seated in the center, and two supplicants, Mary on the left and John the Foreunner (the Baptist) on the right, approaching Jesus to ask favors on behalf of humankind. This type is often painted as three separate icons, one for Mary, one for Jesus, and one for John.

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The traditional origin story for the “appearance” of the “Quick To Hear” icon is this:

The prototype of the icon hung on a wall in the Dochiariou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Mt. Athos is the most famous monastic center of Eastern Orthodoxy, and over the centuries monks from many countries, including Russia, had centers there. The mountain is considered to be sacred to Mary, and it is generally forbidden for females (even of most species of animals) to be on it. That is a story in itself, but for another time.

The wall on which it hung was a chapel open on both sides, and in 1664 a monk named Neilos (“Nil” in Slavic) used it as a night-time shortcut from the monastery kitchen to the refectory. He carried a torch to light his way, which of course put out a considerable amount of smoke as it burned.

One day when the monk was on his usual course, passing the icon with his torch, he suddenly heard a voice saying, “From now on, do not come here with lighted torches and do not blacken my image!”

Neilos was very frightened by the sudden, authoritative voice, and did not know who was speaking. But eventually he decided that it must just have been some other monk. He put the matter out of his head, and kept up his habit of using the chapel as a shortcut. But then he heard the voice again. This time it scolded him. “Monk unworthy of the name, how long can you so blithely and shamelessly blacken my image?” But this time there was something else. Neilos was struck blind.

He realized that it was Mary speaking, and he repented his actions. The monks found him praying before the image the next morning, and he told them the story of his experience. A perpetual lamp was lit before the icon, and Neilos spent much time kneeling before it, offering incense along with many prayers. Because of this, Neilos heard the voice again, this time telling him that he was forgiven and healed, and that the icon was to be called “Quick To Hear,” because monks who called upon Mary would be quickly heard and have their prayers mercifully answered. The corridor was closed, the icon was moved into another chapel, and the icon (and of course the monastery) became a noted place of pilgrimage.

As you can see, this follows a common folklore motif pattern for “miracle-working icons.” At the beginning the icon is lost, or unrecognized, or ignored. Then the icon makes its presence and wishes known in a dream, or in some other way. At first the signs are not taken seriously enough, but then they are made obvious, and the person involved in the tale repents and does what the image has told him or her to do, and things are again made right.

The “Quick to Hear” icon is only one of a number of famous “Athos” icons that were adopted into Russian Orthodox iconography as “miracle-working” (chudotvornaya) images.

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